In the blur of the Olympic competition, it’s easy to overlook the sheer scale of Adams’ achievement.
When someone is so good at what they do for so long, it’s easy to forget they’re the exception that proves the rule. In this case, the rule is that no athlete could medal at four consecutive Olympic Games, navigating potentially career-ending injuries and the birth of two children along the way. The exception is Dame Valerie Adams, who won bronze in the shot put on Sunday, to go with her two golds (2008, 2012) and a silver (2016).
The Olympics are a public affair and their scarcity can lead to misrepresentations of athletes’ careers. Some perform incredibly well on the biggest stage of all but do little else, while others enjoy long, respected careers despite underperforming at every Olympics. Adams fits into neither category because she has always won in a decades-long career that began back in 2001 as a tall, fast teenager. Because of the sheer volume of Adam’s achievements, some listing is required.
2001: Gold at World Youth Championships, aged 16.
2002: Gold at World Junior Championships and silver at the Commonwealth Games.
2003: Fifth at World Championships, aged 18.
2004: Seventh in first Olympics appearance.
2005: Silver at World Championships, aged 20.
2006: This is where we need to take a break to steady our expectations. Winning world, youth and junior golds, as well as a silver at the World Champs, was unheard of at the time. If Adams could win gold at the next World Champs she’d become only the third woman in history to win at every age level.
Not only did Adams win at the 2007 World Champs, she won every single major international meet that she competed in from 2006 to 2014.
Let me repeat that: Valerie Adams won every major international meet she competed in from the 2006 Commonwealth Games to the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
That’s nine whole years of winning everything: 3 x Commonwealth Games, 4 x World Outdoor Championships, 4 x World Indoor Championships, and 2 x Olympics. Adams’ winning streak for internationally ranked meets was 56. That’s just so many competitions. Ever met a nine year old? Adams won was the undisputed shot put champion for the entirety of that child’s life. Very few athletes will win that many competitions across their entire careers, let alone consecutively. Just imagine being a shot putter between August 2006 and July 2015. There were multiple world class shot putters in that time who, had they been at their peak at any other time, would have been strong champion contenders. Instead, they had the misfortune of being their best when Valerie Adams was her best, and only one or two of them won a global meet for nine years. Whole careers that never started thanks to Adams’ dominance.
Such altering of a sporting code’s history has happened before. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have successfully shut out two generations of potential tennis champions, but that’s been a group effort. Serena Williams has won a lot but not near as consistently as Adams. In 2014, Adams was named the female World Athlete of the Year by the IAAF, the biggest individual award in track and field. She remains the only specialist thrower to ever win the women’s award in its 31-year history.
Winning so consistently in an event that is hugely demanding on the body is rare. And when Adams required surgery to her throwing elbow and left shoulder in the 2014 off-season, and then knee surgery nine months later, no one would have been surprised if she’d chosen to begin her steady exit from the sport. She’d achieved everything there was to achieve, multiple times. She’d been sitting at the top for 15 years. Any regular person would take their golds and their records and their Visa sponsorship and waltz off the scene, but Adams is six foot four with the fast twitch muscles of a high jumper. She returned to competition and won silver at the 2016 Olympics, beaten by Michelle Carter, who threw a personal best on her final attempt.
I remember watching in 2016 and thinking how devastated Adams must have been with her result, because when all you know is gold, silver can look a lot like tin. Then she was pregnant and missing a full athletic season at 32 years old, and every door surely led to a timely retirement. Instead, she posted pregnancy workouts from the gym, lifting more than your buffest friend could but with a baby inside of her. She’d make a great influencer, I thought at the time, planning out her post-athletics career from my desk. She could do her workouts and not have to compete anymore because why would she want to try get back to the top after a baby, I thought, while greasily scrolling through my phone on my lunch break. In 2018, Adams went to the Commonwealth Games and won silver as a new mother, showing that her work ethic and pain threshold had only increased. She’d proven that she could still throw, but the Commonwealth Games are the slightly slower, slightly weaker sibling to the Olympics. And when Adams announced she was pregnant again at the end of 2018, well, you get where this is going.
Again and again, Adams has been politely shown the door by her body – through injuries, pregnancy, two caesarean section births, simply age and time – and again and again, she’s politely closed it. She’d already won (in the way that people are said to have morally, emotionally, or spiritually won while in fact losing) by qualifying for the 2020 Olympics as a 36 year old mother of two competing in an event known for its gruelling physicality. She didn’t have to make it to the podium to make her point. But she did, because that’s what champions do. It’s all they know how to do. Only a fool would dare predict what Adams will do next, despite time marching onwards, but it doesn’t matter. She has achieved what no New Zealand athlete has achieved: dominance to such an extent that her sport is changed because of it. We would all do well to remember that Adams is not normal. We may be used to her but we can’t take for granted the volume of what she’s achieved across 20 years of competing.
After her bronze medal performance in Tokyo, which she claims means more to her than her golds, Adams said she wanted to “continue to inspire female athletes all around the world [that] if you want to have a kid and you want to come back and be at the top of the world, you can.” But Adams has only ever lived at the top, so really she was coming home.